February 21, 2024

Gauging the opposition: Azkals take on rough neighbors in FIFA World Cup qualifiers

Gauging the opposition: Azkals take on rough neighbors in FIFA World Cup qualifiers
Art by Royce Nicdao

It was 13 years ago when Philippine football had its renaissance with the match dubbed as the "Miracle of Hanoi."

In December 2010, Phil Younghusband, Chris Greatwich, and the rest of the Philippine Azkals stunned host Vietnam, 2-0, in the group stage of the AFF Championship. 

This never happened before. Vietnam was a traditional powerhouse in football.

It made people believe that maybe we can.

Four years later, the Azkals advanced to the second round of the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, finished as runners-up in the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup, and made their debut in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.

Fast forward to today, the Philippines is nowhere near the success they experienced in the past. 

Only goalkeeper Neil Etheridge is left from that 2010 roster. But with the likes of veteran midfielder Stephan Schrock, naturalized player Bienvenido Marañon, and other rising booters in the 26-man roster, the Azkals have a shot of moving forward in the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, as well as the 2027 Asian Cup.

And it all begins at home this Thursday at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in Manila.

What's at stake?

The second round of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers sees the Philippines drawn in Group F with Iraq, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Each squad will play home and away games starting tomorrow until June 11, 2024.

The Azkals were given a bye to the second round, along with the rest of the top 26 teams in Asia.

The top two teams in the group will advance to the third round and automatically earn a berth in the 2027 Asian Cup. 

The 2026 FIFA World Cup expanded to a record 48 teams, with eight slots available for Asia. This gives the Philippines higher odds of making it to the men's division of the prestigious tournament for the first time. 

But of course, the Azkals have to earn it. And it's not going to be easy.

RELATED STORY: 'Fight together': After Filipinas, Neil Etheridge seeks support for Azkals in FIFA World Cup qualifiers

Philippines vs Vietnam

First match (home): November 16, 2023

Second match (away): June 6, 2024

Vietnam is currently the best Southeast Asian team, ranked 94th in the world and 15th in Asia. In comparison, the Philippines dropped to 138th in the world and is 25th in the continent.

After the "Miracle of Hanoi," the Azkals proved the victory was no fluke as they beat Vietnam in the 2012 AFF Championship, 1-0.

The Vietnamese took their revenge in 2018, winning twice in the home-and-away semifinals en route to their second title.

Unlike the Philippines, Vietnam reached the third round of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Philippines vs Indonesia

First match (home): November 21, 2023 

Second match (away): June 11, 2024

Indonesia is ranked below the Philippines at 145th in the world and 27th in Asia.

The Indonesians too are familiar foes for the Filipinos. In the 2010 AFF Championship after beating Vietnam, the Azkals were blanked twice by Indonesia in the home-and-away semifinals.

The Azkals once again suffered defeat at the hands of Indonesia, 2-1, in the group stage of last year's AFF Championship.

In the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Indonesia failed to reach the third round but secured an appearance in the 2023 Asian Cup.

RELATED STORY: Azkals get morale-boosting support from global sports icon ahead of FIFA World Cup qualifiers

Philippines vs Iraq

First match (home): March 26, 2024 

Second match (away): June 6, 2024

Iraq will be the Azkals' highest-ranked opponent in the second round, as it is ranked 68th in the world and seventh in Asia.

Unlike the Azkals, Iraq has experience competing in the third round of the FIFA World Cup qualifiers, doing it thrice in the last four editions. 

It has been a long and arduous road for the Azkals after the "Miracle of Hanoi."

Maybe it's time for a "Miracle in Manila."

Catch the matches of the Azkals this Thursday and on Monday live at 7 p.m. on One Sports, One Sports+, and the Pilipinas Live app.

(PM)